Every time I discussed my tiger tales from Tadoba, Pench or Corbett with someone from Kolkata, I was always confronted with one question, “Are there any chances of a tiger sighting in the Sunderbans? I have heard it is almost impossible.”
I would highlight recent tiger sighting posts on social media but deep within would always nurture the desire of blurting out, “Yes, I have seen a tiger in the Sunderbans!” This desire coupled with resolve finally landed me one day at Godkhali jetty from where we made our way to the Pirkhali islands in the Sunderbans after getting our permit at Sajnekhali.
Located in the vast delta of the Bay of Bengal, the Sunderbans is a swamp forest intersected by complex waterways, creeks and canals. The sighting of tigers is driven by the tidal timings — there are two high and as many low tides everyday and it changes daily.
Soumyajit, our tour mentor from Going Wild and guide, Ashok da looked for the fresh tiger pugmarks along the mudflats on the islands as the water gradually receded during low tides.
Though we could not spot any tiger on the first afternoon, we did come across variegated species of kingfisher (black capped, brown winged, white breasted), enjoyed the beautiful flight of a brahminy kite and were excited by multiple sightings of some of the largest salt-water crocodiles that bathed in the sun — I felt those exposed set of teeth would even frighten a tiger away!
We spent the night on the boat that was anchored on the water outside the forest area. Soumyajit narrated his tiger sighting tales at Sunderbans over the last three years fuelling our expectations further.
Early next morning, awakened by the starting of the engine, I went to the deck. Sanjay da, my co-traveller who was already there with his multiple cameras and lenses, greeted me with a smile, “I think we will see the tiger today. With so much fog around a tiger won’t be able to see us and may come close to the boat”. It was indeed a dense fog that had engulfed the entire forest reducing visibility to a minimum as the boat gradually made its way into Pirkhali islands again.
As Soumyajit and Ashok da started exploring both banks with their binoculars, Gopal, our boatman, suddenly shouted, “Bagh, Bagh” (Tiger, tiger). The deck came back to life as everyone turned their attention to where Gopal was pointing — inside the forests amid the criss-cross network of trees on the ground there was indeed a tiger, nay a tigress! It was the moment that everyone probably dreams of during their visit to the Sunderbans — the big cat sitting against the backdrop of greenery on mud dunes in the fog.
It was a majestic sight for the eyes and even the poor light conditions couldn’t deter our spirits as the cameras swung into action. The tigress disappeared after a couple of minutes only to come back after sometime.
It had spotted us too and thus, began an hour-long game of hide and seek, amid the dense forests that made visibility difficult. Soumyajit and Ashok da started predicting the movement of the tigress as our boat gradually moved, keeping the islands on our right.
The tigress peeked through the hetal bon (palm tree forests), swam across a narrow creek (as we had anticipated), gingerly walked on the mud banks, glanced at us and disappeared again but not before giving us some of the most beautiful and clear shots as sunlight gradually dispersed the fog.
This was a tigress on the move but as it disappeared, we wondered whether we would be able to see it again. Anxious faces looked at one another. As the boat started to take a turn and go around the island, the tigress re-appeared on the edge of the bank. It sat amidst the trees for a good 15 minutes, scanning the banks time and again, while never taking her eyes off our boat.
It was a sighting that was beyond any description — no possible attempt at elocution is adequate to epitomise that moment! I clicked away to my heart’s content — after all I needed all the proof that my dream of a swamp tiger sighting in the Sunderbans had indeed turned into reality. The tigress did not cross the river channel and went back into the forests.
The one and a half hours of heart-stopping drama came to an end with the main protagonist leaving the stage as we put down our cameras. During the remaining period of our tour, we also saw the elusive leopard cat and the crocodiles reappeared again at different places.
The trip drew to a close but not before the falcon, osprey and collared kingfisher duo gave us some beautiful shots. All of us were in a cheerful mood as the boat reached Godkhali. Now I can confidently say, “Yes, I have seen a tiger in the Sunderbans”.